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Barriers to truly high-speed rail: Why are our trains so much slower than others’?

The vast majority of existing and planned intercity passenger rail lines in the United States involve trains that can travel at speeds up to 110 miles per hour. While that isn’t exactly a slow train, it ain’t “high-speed rail” as the world defines it.
European high-speed rail corridors start at 125 mph and reach 220 mph. Chinese and Japanese high-speed trains reach the same velocity, though new maglev trains can reach up to 270 mph (they average much less in operation). These speeds seem a distant dream for most of America. Why is it that the rest of the world’s train speeds start where ours mostly peak?

Freight rail resistance
Amtrak operates a near-nationwide passenger rail service, running trains in 46 states across 21,000 miles of track. However, Amtrak owns only 29 percent of the rail miles it uses. Freight rail companies own the majority of the track, which they rent to Amtrak. Citing safety, freight companies are hesitant to allow trains traveling any faster than 79 mph on or near their lines, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Giving priority to high-speed passenger trains would also slow down freight, the Journal points out.

Federal Rail Administrator Joseph Szabo recently pledged that high-speed rail will co-exist with freight without harming the performance of either. According to the Journal of Commerce, Szabo said that the way to accomplish this is through investment in public infrastructure. This came on the heels of two record-setting weeks of freight traffic for the year, according to an announcement from the Association of American Railroads.

America has had an extensive relationship with the automobile and as a result, creation and maintenance of roads and highways have dominated state and federal transportation budgets. It is hard to find money for creating a new high-speed rail system and upgrading our current rail system when a great deal of money is required for keeping our existing roads and highways functional.

Furthermore, if we cannot run high-speed rail on freight lines, then we will have to create a whole new rail system, adding significantly to costs including purchasing property. This is where the Midwest has an advantage, because buying property from dozens of farmers is much easier and less expensive than buying property from hundreds of business owners in a more dense area like the East Coast. Of course, if there is local resistance, the tracks and their high cost can be easily stalled.

This leads to politics. A recent Minnesota 2020 blog discussing the political controversy surrounding the Milwaukee-Madison rail line pointed out only one example of the political fervor surrounding rail in America. People opposing rail funding mostly use the same argument as Wisconsin’s conservative gubernatorial candidate: We cannot afford to build high-speed rail when roads and highways are in poor condition.
Fortunately, these barriers are not insurmountable. A few high-speed rail projects are making progress in America, slowly but surely. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently visited China and Japan to test their trains and elicit bids to construct California’s high-speed rail system.

He also recently announced that California will be seeking financing from China. The state is already set to receive $2.25 billion of the $8 billion national stimulus allocated to high-speed rail, and that is just for the Los Angeles to San Francisco line.

Amtrak has recently revealed a vision to modernize its Northeast Corridor, linking Boston with Washington, D.C., and cities in between. The plan will put high-speed rail (up to 220mph) through parts of the East Coast, cutting travel times and congestion drastically, but it also comes with a high cost. Construction would require $4.7 billion annually for 25 years, totaling $117.5 billion.

Hopes not as high here
Sadly, hopes are not as high for high-speed rail in Minnesota. This is in spite of the fact that, according to Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz, chair of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, “Over the past five years, ridership on the Midwest’s shorter-distance corridors has grown 55 percent.”

If there is one thing studies and experience have shown us so far, it is that truly high-speed rail is a game changer. Speeds that reach 220 mph far outstrip car travel, which isn’t going to get significantly faster anytime soon.

A joint London School of Economics and University of Hamburg study shows high-speed rail that connects cities without notable economies positively affects their economic growth.

If the rest of the developed, modern world is building high-speed systems and seeing real results, it’s time we do the same. What we have now in fast rail is a start but not a game changer. It would be shortsighted to use criticism of our moderately fast-speed rail plan as a reason to abandon seeking higher speeds in the future.

Riordan Frost is a Policy Associate with Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/22/2010 - 06:51 am.

    It is sometimes forgotten that the railroads, particularly CSX, own extremely valuable rights-of-way.

    The clear trend is toward the expansion of passenger service in the relatively densely populated parts of North America. The passenger service ought to be aiming at modest targets: routes of up to perhaps 300 miles, probably not more than 500 miles, at 100 m.p.h., between major urban centers, without sleeper or dining service. The service can not run reasonably expect to run on existing freight lines. That is not a reasonable demand to make of the freight roads.

    However, there is usually no other logical place to put new tracks than in the existing rights-of-way already owned by the freight roads, and only in a few places in North America would passenger demand justify the construction of dedicated lines.

    This points to the logical solution:

    The public pay for an increase in track capacity, namely extra tracks, and maybe electrification, in the existing rights-of-way in areas of significant passenger density.

    In return the railroads share their rights of way, and share the resultant increase in overall system capacity with the passenger system. This would allow some segregation of fast trains e.g., modest passenger trains (up to 120 or 150 m.p.h.) and intermodal trains, from slow trains, e.g., everything else. Intermodal container trains are the high speed express trains of our times. This is a high priority, premium price service. The major customers are UPS, FedEx, DHL, COSCO, Evergreen, Maersk, and so on. It is the epitome of what “scheduled railroading” is all about.

    Both the freight roads and the public would be better off. It avoids having the good be the enemy of the best. It allows some growth in the passenger business essentially immediately and at not unreasonable cost.

    And if Congress ever gets around to voting enough money to build dedicated high speed TGV lines for Amtrak, then they can do something different. Don’t hold your breath, though.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/22/2010 - 10:59 am.

    A European rail manufacturer (Alstom) has been making very high speed trains (noted by Schulze as TGV) for years now, and they have been purchased by numerous countries as they upgrade their transportation systems for the the 21st Century. Some have been clocked at over 400mph. America is again behind in this effort as we neglect our infrastructure. The benefits of getting this on track (no pun intended) are so vast, in so may ways, unless we start a full court press on this as we did with the interstate, we will be left behind on our ability to move people and goods at a fast, but also cost efficient way. Definately needs a strong push from both the public and private sectors to make this happen, and soon

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 10/23/2010 - 03:14 am.

    Right on, Myles. The Chinese have licensed from Alstom and are building a system which will connect every major city in China with high speed rail.

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